authorities have accused the popular Islamic preacher Dr Zakir Naik of
supporting terrorism and declared him wanted.
Problems arose for the preacher last summer, after Bangladeshi authorities said that one of the gunmen responsible for an attack on a cafe in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, which left 22 people dead, had been inspired by him.
Bangladesh responded by banning Peace TV, an Islamic channel broadcast from Dubai which Naik founded in 2006 and which claims to reach 100 million people worldwide.
The 51-year-old denied supporting violence, releasing a video statement in which he said: “Killing innocent beings is the second major sin in Islam.”
But in November, India’s counter terrorism agency, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), filed a First Information Report, an official police complaint, against Naik and the Mumbai-based non-profit Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) that he founded in 1991, accusing him of indulging in unlawful activities and promoting religious hatred.
The Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded by imposing a five-year ban on the IRF under the country’s anti-terror laws.
India’s Enforcement Directorate, which investigates economic crimes, has accused the IRF of money-laundering and closed its properties in Mumbai. An educational trust run by Naik has also been prevented from receiving funds from abroad.
Naik has not returned to India since last July.
His whereabouts are currently not known, although he has in recent months given interviews and conducted a press conference via Skype from Saudi Arabia, which has bestowed on him one of the country’s highest awards for “service to Islam”.
He has offered to be questioned via video-conferencing, but the Indian authorities have refused, and earlier this month approached Interpol, the International Police Organisation, seeking his arrest and return to India.
Naik considers this to be part of a broader Indian government agenda.
In September, before the charges were filed and the ban imposed, Naik wrote an open letter in which he said: “This is not just an attack on me, it’s an attack against Indian Muslims. And it’s an attack against peace, democracy and justice.”
In a subsequent open letter after the charges and ban, he wrote: “IRF and I were set up for a ban .... It is now proven that the decision to ban IRF was taken months ago and it was a communal decision. Before investigations were done, even before reports [were] submitted, the ban was already decided ... Whether it was owing to my religion or some other reason does not matter. What matters now is that my work of 25 years - completely lawful work - has been banned. And that is the most unfortunate thing for this country.”
Naik’s view is shared by many within India’s Muslim community, members of which have come under attack from far-right Hindu groups associated with Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Indian authorities have previously accused Naik of influencing young people in southern Kerala state to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). But Naik has denied these charges and has criticised ISIL, referring to it as the “anti-Islamic state”.
The doctor-turned-televangelist has been a figure of some controversy since the early 1990s.
Naik insists that his dawah work - the act of proselytising for Islam - is allowed by the constitution, which permits every citizen to follow and propagate their religion. But the issue of conversion remains controversial and several states have anti-conversion laws.
Some have accused Naik of using sectarian language, while parody videos making fun of what critics call his “illogical arguments” have been posted on YouTube.
There have been media reports that at one of his public talks he called on all Muslims to become terrorists - a statement Naik has said was taken out of context.
He has been denied a visa to the UK and Canada, while Malaysia has banned his lectures. Hindraf, a Malaysian minority rights group, is demanding that Malaysia cancel Naik’s permanent residency there.
In 2009, Peace TV Urdu was launched, followed by Peace TV Bangla in April 2011.
In 2012, Peace TV was banned by the previous Indian government headed by the centre-left Congress Party. India’s intelligence agencies have been wary of Peace TV as it propagates the Wahabi school of Islam.
Naik being the face of this brand of Islam in India and he became the easy target. The Islamophobia has filtered down to a stage where all conservative Muslims are seen as possible terrorists; the distinction between conservatism and extremism has got blurred.
“The doctor-turned-televangelist has been a figure of some controversy since the early 1990s."